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How to Maximize Your Social Security Benefits

The major factors to consider when taking Social Security are your life expectancy, taxes, marital status, when you plan on retiring, and will you or your spouse receive a government pension. Like most pensions, Social Security Administration (SSA) has actuarially determined to give you different amounts based on when you commence payments. Taking it before the current full retirement age (FRA) of 66 reduces payments and delaying it past FRA increases your payments.

The SSA calculates your payment for your full retirement age based on your highest 35 years of paying into the system. They index your earnings for inflation when making their calculations. For example if you were born in 1951 and made $7,087 in 1973, Social Security would count that as $40,183 in today’s dollars.

If you don’t have 35 years of work history, SSA will average in those years with zeros. If some of your 35 years were part-time jobs, it may be very beneficial for you to work longer to average in some higher earnings and erase the low years.

Working and Taking Benefits

Social Security was originally designed for the destitute as a stop gap from when they were too sick to work and when they died fairly quickly after that. It is important to remember this as you think about the system. Because of this, they don’t pay benefits early for people still earning decent incomes. The following applies to your own, spousal, and survivor benefits:

 

  • In 2013, they take away $1 for every $2 you earn over $15,120 if you begin payments before your full retirement age.
  • In the year you reach full retirement age, they take away $1 for every $3 you earn over $40,080 before the month you reach FRA.
  • Once you reach Full Retirement Age, there are no restrictions on how much money you earn.

 

In addition to actually losing some of your benefits, you can also be taxed on some of your Social Security payments. Since it is the government, they decided to make this more complicated than it should be. The SSA and the IRS created a special number that has absolutely no use in the real world; it is called “combined income.”

The formula for determining this mythical number is:

Adjusted Gross Income (last line of page one of your 1040)

+ non-taxable interest (muni bond interest)

+ 1/2 of your Social Security Benefits

= your combined income

For people who file single or head of household, the IRS will tax their Social Security as follows based on their combined income:

< $25,000 = no taxes on Social Security
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